'Bumblebee' review: Travis Knight saves Transformers

When Michael Bay's first 'Transformers' hit the screens, it brought his signature techniques to life: Flashiness over substance. Since then, each subsequent instalment has been of increasing lower quality. So, it was natural that when Paramount announced a spinoff for Bumblebee, scepticism would follow. However, Travis Knight's direction and a pleasantly simple story save what would otherwise have become the definitive black horse of Hollywood's money-churner machine.

Starting off with the Fall of Cybertron, the homeworld of the Autobots and Decepticons, Bumblebee wastes no time in putting its titular character front and centre, with the young scout - still named B-127 - shipped off to Earth on Optimus Prime's orders to protect the planet.

On Earth, B-127 quickly but accidentally makes an enemy of Agent Burns (John Cena) - marking him as a target. However, he is lethally injured in a battle with Blitzwing, a Deception Seeker who cripples B-127 and leaves him for dead.

Enter Charlie Watson, who is, for the lack of better words, the freshest breath of air to touch the series by far. She finds B-127 by accident, setting off the chain of events sure to change fate - both of the Autobots and herself.

Travis Knight, who also directed the masterful Kubo and the Two Strings, brings his character-driven narrative expertise to Bumblebee - something that the series sorely lacked. The film's scope is much smaller, allowing it greater breathing room and fleshing out both the human and the alien side of things in this grand tangle.

Charlie personifies teenage angst, depression and hopelessness as a girl who lost her dad and resents her mom for moving on. Among all the characters in the film, she has the greatest growth as she tries to come to terms with her past as she teaches Bumblebee how to blend in with the world. It's odd to see such a pleasant human-machine dynamic - one that has arguably been lacking since the likes of The Iron Giant and Terminator 2, where both the human and the robot learn from and get attached to each other in a very realistic, heartfelt manner.

Meanwhile, we have Agent Burns, a member of Sector 7, who wants to capture Bumblebee with the reluctant help of two Decepticons. Burns is the most self-aware character in the entire film, capable of - and indeed - calling out the government's plan to take the help of Decepticons. It makes for a particularly hilarious exchange at one point. However, he is also incredibly serious, embodying the "shoot first, ask questions later" philosophy - but in a somewhat roundabout way is also one of the most reasonable characters. It's telling that John Cena was perfect for the role very quickly.

The effects work is barebones for a Transformers movie - a good chunk of it is showcased in the first few minutes when the Autobots make their last stand on Cybertron. Apart from the characters, the film's greatest achievement is making the robots instantly recognisable - be it Soundwave, Shockwave, Cliffjumper or whoever - if the robot has a name, it stands out admirably. It also helps that the film mostly uses the designs from the very original cartoon series.

The action is well-choreographed and easy to follow. Gone are the days of watch metal mashing together mindlessly and trying to figure out who is who - Bumblebee keeps the action on a scale comfortably small enough that every participant is distinctly discernible.

Overall, Bumblebee is a welcome addition to the Transformers films and is easily the best of the lot - though arguably that's not really such a high bar to reach. It foregoes scale for scope, puts the characters in the front and the action serves as a plot device - and is better for it. It's fun, it's emotional and most of all, it's a great film.


Bumblebee

Director: Travis Knight

Written by: Christina Hodson

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.

Score: 4/5

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'Bumblebee' review: Travis Knight saves Transformers

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